Gangnam slum

Gangnam slum

Widow Im Kyung Ja, 75, lives alone in a small but well-equipped house.

A two-door LG refrigerator fits snugly next to her single bed, both gifts from her daughter, she proudly declares.

An attached kitchenette allows her to cook her meals, and she follows her favourite soap operas on a flatscreen TV on a chest of drawers.

In a small yard outside, she keeps several onggi, traditional earthenware jars used to ferment and store kimchi.

Madam Im makes very delicious kimchi, raves her neighbour Kim Hee Dae, 79.

"You have to try it."

The Sunday Times met the women on a hot Thursday afternoon in the expensive Gangnam district, known for its glitzy skyscrapers, luxury apartments and opulent living epitomised in South Korean pop star Psy's global hit.

But they are not exactly leading the high life, Gangnam style. In fact, quite the opposite.

The two friends live in Guryong, one of the last few remaining slums in South Korea.

Located just three roads from the country's most expensive high-rise residence, Samsung Tower Palace, this shanty town at the foot of Mount Daemo is deemed an eyesore in the country's wealthiest and fastest-growing district.

But it may go soon, if redevelopment plans are finally rolled out after being stalled for a decade due to squabbles over compensation, differing opinions among various stakeholders and conflicts between the Seoul city government and the local district office.

In Guryong, about 2,000 people - mostly elderly folk who receive a government subsidy of about 200,000 won (S$242) a month - live in cramped shacks made of thin wooden planks, rusty metal sheets, rugs and other materials apparently salvaged from recycling yards. Toilets are just holes in the ground, each shared by five or more households.

Insects run amok.

Some homes are so shabby, their occupants would rather hang out with friends in communal areas outdoors.

Yet there is a certain village feel about the 29ha settlement. The residents seem united in their shared hopes for a better future, despite their grim reality.

"Of course we need to get out of this kind of life, but we can't leave our homes yet or we won't get anything (from the government)," says Madam Im.

Like most of the residents there, she was displaced from her home in Jamsil after Seoul embarked on massive remodelling projects ahead of the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Madam Kim, who lives with her son, recalls: "Land was very cheap in Gangnam then, and the government promised that if we move to Guryong, they would provide housing for us after the Olympics.

"But it never kept its promise."

Gangnam today is home to more than 500,000 people and is the paragon of modernisation and capitalism.

The Sunday Times understands that the Gangnam District Office, together with the Seoul Metropolitan Government and state-backed developer SH Corporation, is in the midst of drawing up a redevelopment-cum-resettlement plan for Guryong and is gathering feedback from residents.

Banners put up around the shanty town urge people to call a hotline to share their views.

The stalled discussions had resumed after a fire last November gutted 60 ramshackle homes, killing a 71-year-old man.

Besides residential projects, there appears to be plans for commercial developments, according to local media reports. Details may be released only next year.

But for now, The Sunday Times understands there are two viable options: either move all the residents to a new estate or relocate them to available units in other residential projects by SH in Seoul.

Most Guryong residents are worried about having to pay rent, says Mr Lee Kang Il, 52, who used to work at the community centre before it was forcibly demolished in January.

"Life here is the worst kind imaginable, but we stay on because we can't afford to live anywhere else," says Mr Lee.

He lives in a small shipping container home with his wife and 27-year-old daughter who, he says, is studying for an exam to become a civil servant.

Others like Madam Im prefer to live on their own even though they have children.

She says her daughter lives in the Yeouido financial hub and works for a broadcasting station, but Madam Im does not want to move in with her and be a burden.

"I'd rather live here alone. I may not be rich, but I get peace of mind," she says, adding that her daughter sends her money and buys her things that she needs.

Mr Han Sang Hun, 86, and his wife have five children, including a son who lives in the United States and another son in Japan.

He has no wish to live overseas.

"I'm very happy, life is good here," he says in fluent English picked up from his years as a tour guide. "Now the government wants to make a new big building, but I don't know if I want to move there. I'm too old now."

This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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